Living with Wolves
Benighted (published as Bareback in the UK) by Kit Whitfield is another addition to the ranks of supernatural/paranormal fiction dealing with classic monsters: in this case werewolves. Only it’s being promoted as "a literary thriller that transcends the bounds of genre." That’s always interesting to see. Every so often a fabulously original fantasy book will achieve widespread recognition and deserved best-seller status, confounding the prejudices of people who don’t usually read "that sort of thing", at least until they can find reasons to explain why it isn’t really fantasy after all.
On the other hand, all too often, a book is promoted by mainstream bookselling and publishing as something remarkable and startlingly original because it focuses on, say, time travel, or Hitler winning the Second World War. Most SF&F fans can rattle off a list of books on similar themes that these mainstream people just aren’t aware of. When the author of the supposedly original book is equally unaware of what’s already been written around their chosen idea, the results are frequently disappointing. So I’m interested to see which side of this divide Kit Whitfield’s debut novel should be shelved on.
The opening premise is encouraging. Given the proliferation of these supernatural/paranormal books lately, any new author must find an original perspective. Whitfield does this by making lycanthropy the normal condition of humankind. Fewer than one percent of the population are anmorphic — not subject to change on the night of the full moon. They’re marked out by their smooth hands, not calloused by monthly padding around on paws, and by their scars, untouched by the regular transformation that heals all but the most appalling injuries. A visible minority, disdained as disabled, they suffer discrimination and abuse from early childhood onwards when they’re thrown into moon night crèches where the laws of the jungle apply. Why offer anything more than basic further education to a "bareback" whose only career option is working for DORLA, the Department for Ongoing Regulation of Lycanthropic Affairs.
What does DORLA do? This is where the book becomes more complicated and, for the reader, more intriguing. When ninety-nine percent of the population becomes mindless ravening animals once a month, who will protect the children, the old and vulnerable; more prosaically, the livestock? The lycos need the barebacks to stay sentient and capable; otherwise their comfortable society will disintegrate into chaos. Whitfield has thought this all through, deftly sliding in bits and pieces of history to explain how the current state of affairs developed. Draconian laws compel a moon night curfew for lunes, as lycos in their transformed state are known. DORLA operatives enforce those laws, under-resourced, risking life and limb, not through choice but because they have no other option. Only they’re castigated for their failures and resented for their successes. So while overall, the system works, it is hardly a healthy state of affairs when once a month, the oppressed can become the oppressors. Any lune caught outside on a moon night can be imprisoned in a straw-filled cell, beaten under the guise of interrogation, and denied access to lawyers just as long as DORLA wants.
Lola May Galley is a DORLA operative simply trying to get through each day. She’s doing her best to maintain a relationship with her lyco sister, pregnant after an unwanted sexual encounter on a moon night. Becca is terrified that her baby will be born head first, something tradition says will make it a bareback. At work, Lola’s responsibilities include legal defence work. She has to represent an unrepentant prowler, Richard Ellaway, a rich, well-connected lyco who sees nothing wrong in ignoring curfew. In his defense, he claims he was just too far from a government shelter when he started furring up. No one at DORLA is inclined to believe him, not least because he bit a hand off Johnny Marcos, the operative trying to catch him. Lola has more sympathy for one of her return clients, Jerry, an alcoholic vagrant who ends up in trouble simply for being too drunk to realize when he’s about to change.
Lola is an outstandingly well-realized central character. We get right inside her head, feeling all her emotions vividly, good and bad. We live with her sense of injustice at the life she’s done nothing to deserve, and wilt with her weariness at fighting unwinnable battles. The book is written in the first person and in continuous present tense, an unusual choice where more authors fail spectacularly than succeed. Kit Whitfield has certainly mastered the style, denying the reader the implicit certainty of reported events. If we’re reading someone saying "I did this and then I did that," there’s a broad hint that they survived to tell the tale. Lola’s story offers no such assurances. This uncertainty all too accurately reflects a bareback’s life, where workmates become friends because there’s no one else who understands, but you never become too close because workmates and friends are so frequently killed and injured by marauding lunes.
Soon Lola’s life is looking up, as far as her modest expectations allow. Becca’s son is born feet first and Lola likes being an aunt, at least for as long as baby Leo is too young to ask questions about why she’s different and to learn the societal prejudices that start in the playground. She finds Paul, the lyco social worker representing Jerry, is unexpectedly sympathetic both to Jerry and to her. Can barebacks and lycos find romance? It’s been known. Lasting love is more tricky. How can barebacks and lycos truly relate, when so much divides them? How can barebacks ever love, when so much of their life is scarred by isolation and resentment? How much truth is there in popular lyco belief that bareback women are either sluts or frigid?
Meanwhile, in her professional life, the Ellaway case continues to present Lola with problems. He turns out to have links with lunes who advocate free-ranging: changing under an open sky instead of locked in a security room. They’re desperate to learn more about their dual nature, to remember something other than confused, fleeting glimpses of their moon nights. But where’s the line between free-ranging and prowling? Are these people somehow connected to a group of prowlers who seem to be actively preying on DORLA operatives? How does their prime suspect, Darryl Seligmann, escape from hospital? How can DORLA manage, if the very lycos they’re supposed to be protecting can’t be relied on to help enforce the laws? What does it mean when operatives are shot with their own silver bullets?
Lola investigates, because that’s her job. As she uncovers things she’d really rather not know, at a personal cost she’d never have chosen to pay, she investigates still further because now there’s nothing else she can do. She uncovers conspiracy on the one hand. One the other, she learns that far more unites lycos and barebacks than divides them. No one is innocent and everyone is corrupted by the lives they lead, through no fault of their own, and by those deliberate choices they make in full knowledge of the consequences. Ultimately Lola must decide what degree of compromise she can live with.
This book has a great deal to say about discrimination and its effects on all those involved. In focusing on this inversion of the werewolf myth, Whitfield avoids the pitfalls of trying to tackle issues of racial, health, sexual or any other kind of real-world discrimination. Consequently the exploration is all the more hard-hitting. But primarily this is a book about people, crucially about one person, Lola May. In stepping inside her head, seeing her world through her eyes, we can gain a new perspective on our own lives. Time and again, famous thinkers have insisted the highest purpose of fiction is commenting on the human condition. So in that sense, yes, this certainly is a literary thriller that transcends the bounds of genre. That doesn’t mean it’s not also a splendidly entertaining genre book, giving an audacious twist to the werewolf mythos. That talented SF&F writers can manage both things at once may come as a surprise to mainstream critics, but it will hardly be news to genre fans.